Thursday, 21 March 2013

Top Ten Most Loathsome Character Traits

You have no idea how long I have been wanting to use that title.

I was going to call this post 'Top Ten Tips for Defenestration', but I thought that would be somewhat misleading, as one might approach the post expecting a guide on how best to fling objects out of windows with the most satisfying results. And, while defenestration may be a potential side-effect (or, maybe, just one you really really really wish would occur) of these traits, it's never guaranteed.

Most well-constructed characters aren't black-and-white, two-fold cardboard cutouts with personalities that read more easily than The Very Hungry Caterpillar. In fact, unless you're really devoted to a particular individual, there's likely at least one attribute of theirs that you find a little offputting, such as Harry Potter's innumerable angst-fests, Katniss Everdeen's seeming aversion to emotive expression, and the fact that Eragon was gifted with a tongue with which to express his exceedingly limited intelligence.

However, while most traits like these are balanced out in a protagonist, there are some that are all bit irredeemable - at least to some. Note here that I say "protagonists". I would love to include villains, but to be honest a villain without any loathsome traits is a bit of a pathetic excuse for an antagonist. So, today, we're sticking with the good guys. Or are we . . .

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1 - Egotism
This protagonist has an ego so big it's a wonder there's room for anything else in the story. Pride in a character, particularly a skilled on, isn't neccessarily a bad thing, but this . . . this takes it to a whole new level. Often entailing chronic seflishness, whining, self-pity and unpleasant behaviour towards others, an incredibly egotistical character is very likely to alienate the reader from any empathetic attachment with their self-obsessed personages almost instantaneously.

2 - Petty Maliciousness
Have you ever met a person who deliberately prevarocates pain and upset to others for their own amusement? That's the kind of character we're talking about here. Often the acts won't be large - in fact,  it's probably worse when they aren't, because it emphasises the really loathsome thing about this sort of character - the fact that they deliberately ruin the lives of others because they want to. No motive, no aim, just the simple fact that they enjoy it.

3 - Apathy
Some characters will be more empathetic than others, it's true. Whether it be the result of their upbringing, their society, or simply the way they are, not every single one of your characters is going to be keen on the idea of going out of their way to help people over every single over-wrought drama in their lives, and that's fair enough. But when the character has no sympathy for anyone at all? You might as well give them a silly helmet and call them Robocop. Although it's not as damaging as, perhaps, more active personal deficits, an overly apathetic character is only ever going to annoy and frustrate the reader, simply because they can't find any way of bonding with them.

4 - Narrow-Mindedness
Nothing makes me want to bash heads into walls like someone simply refusing to listen. It's fair enough that they have their own viewpoint, and fair enough that they sometimes aren't too willing to change it - sometimes it's not really their fault that they simply don't have experience or interest in some things. But when someone deliberately shuts down all conversation on the matter, even if it's just part of a general discussion with no persuasive aim in mind, and refuses to so much as hear the other party out . . . that's just pig-headed. And there's nothing like a deliberately narrow-minded voice pushing their single opinion down a reader's throat for 200 pages to drive people to homicide.

5 - Jealousy
A jealous character, similarly to a malicious one, is not likely to be the first to jump up and offer a congratulatory hug at someone else's success. In fact, in some ways the jealous character the worse of the two, because of their motivation. A simply malicious character might be sadistic, but the focus of the jealous character's wrath is that bit more focussed that it worsens the effect tenfold. The malicious character might lash out at anything that moves, but at least their sick amusement is fairly all-encompassing. Watching a character fume and sulk because of an imagined personal slight, and then seeing the successful character suffer their revenge, which will often be personalised to suit the intended victim . . . well. I know I'd be reaching for the machete without much of a second thought.

6 - Irrational Cowardliness
This character's afraid of everything? That's hilarious! . . . For all of two pages, until it gets so grating that you wonder why none of their friends have stabbed them to death with a fork yet. Cowardice is a fine character trait in its own right - heck it's a great platform for development as well as comedy - but when it is constantly affecting a character's behaviour, and goes unredressed for a prolonged period of time, it just makes for a deeply frustrating read that's about as much fun as having teeth pulled out.

7 - Saintliness
Bucking the trend a bit - and for good reason. Sure, 'bad' traits aren't much fun, but at least there's potential for redemption there. A character with no flaws whatsoever, though? You'd have an easier time trying to build a bridge out of damp flannels than make them interesting to the reader. It's all very well that they're paragons of honour and truth that respect nature, always help out their neighbours and are fond of children . . . but all at once? All the time? Ugh. I'm rooting for the villain.

8 - Hypocrisy
Hypocrits rank even higher than mosquitos on my List Of Things I Want To Bludgeon To Death With Rolled-Up Newspapers. The worst thing about them isn't that they're often bad people, it's the fact that they say otherwise. And will often ride around on their proverbial high horse spouting condescending life improvement tips to the starving cutpurse while reaching around to snaffle his life savings with the other hand. Sometimes there are very good reasons, both in terms of characters and story mechanics, why you wouldn't want your reader to trust the character. Unfortunately, the fact that your protagonist is the literary equivalent of raisins masquerading as chocolate chips often isn't one of them.

9 - Emotional Excess
They're lost, their guide's vanished, their companion is badly wounded, the bad guy's run off with the fruit of their labours and to top it all off it's the middle of the night and a thunderstorm's just rolled in. Okay. They're upset. And so is the reader - after all, we feel pretty sorry for them. Until they're still immersed in their crying fit twenty pages later. Odds are, at some stage in the story, your character is going to get into a right fix, and it's going to be very painful for them. Emotions - notably teary ones - galore. But if the character then refuses to get up and try and do something about it, the reader's going to think they're not so much justifiably upset than being utterly pathetic. After all, who really has any patience for cry-babies?

10 - Doom-Mongering
Much like the apathetic character, the pessimist is out there too. Okay, so they're not exactly a ray of sunshine, but even if their outlook's not exactly rosy-tinted, a pessimist can still be a good character; realistic, open to failure, and more often than not quite darkly funny. But there's a not-so-fine line between being pessimistic and being the bipedal version of Eeyore. If a character is so lost in their own abject misery that they seem incapable of any emotion outside of sighing, moaning and infurating "I-told-you-so" remarks, then odds are they'll be top of the list of characters that the reader wishes to take an unfortunate trip into the pit of highly poisonous, six-headed adders. Not in the least because they're on the verge of jumping in themselves, just to cheer themselves up.

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Of course, this is only a small, personally selected, collection of traits. There are plenty more to choose from - not in the least the innumerable variations that stem from many of these traits' root in pure and utter selfishness.  But, as I said, these are only personal choices, because some traits annoy me more than others.

So, what about you? Do you agree with my choices here? Are there any traits you feel I've glaringly missed, or does one addition to this list strike you as a bit of an oddity?

Leave me a comment, and let me know!

~ Charley R


  1. Add one through five into a main character and you get Harry Potter. I hated Harry Potter for all seven books, and I wish he had stayed dead. Take away his nose and he's Voldemort.

    Anyway, personal feelings aside, it's time for you to die. Not really-- about that and the personal feelings aside part. Personally, I like this list a lot, though there are a lot more flaws at hand. These are definitely not my favorites, but how can you really love a flaw? (Except egotism. I love that one.)

    1. Stayed dead? As in Harry was dead? You can tell me, I don't really care.

      ~Robyn Hoode

    2. Heh heh, it's always odd picking out a "favourite" flaw. These are just the ones that bring me instantly into a state of revulsion with a character.

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  3. Saintliness! Yes, your MC has to be flawed! Real people aren't perfect and neither should your charrie be!
    But neither should your charrie's flaws be overwhelming and not changed. :)

    Don't kill her yet, Liam. This post goes hand in hand with your posts "How Interesting" and "How to Change a Character".

    ~Robyn Hoode

    1. Absolutely! It's a balanced character you want - or at least one who is going to work on and overcome their flaws, if they have an excess of them. Though admittedly it's a lot harder to sympathise with a character who's incredibly flawed right from the off, unless they have some really winning redeeming traits.

      Also, thanks for letting me know about the spammer - I got 'em!

    2. Your welcome. Did you use the blow-torch? :)

      I'm not saying that he should be full of flaws but at least give him one or two to fix.

      ~Robyn Hoode

    3. Blow-torch, fire, salt and holy water. Just in case.

      Yeah, that's what I mean!

  4. Oh, Charley? It would appear that you have a real parasite this time. Your spam filter must be on the fritz. I rcommend getting rid of it and then you can delete this comment, too. :)


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  6. Great post! I agree with every characteristic on here.

    Mary-Sues really tick me off. I have some characters I consider "perfect"... but they don't meet the standard definition of perfect. They have flaws. They say stupid things and make people made at them. They succeed and then fail. But that just makes me love them even more. I don't WANT to read/write about perfect characters. They have no complexity!